The release of Dominaria has cast Standard into an upheaval in terms of redefining what the format looks like. Generally, I'd describe the phenomenon as positive, since change often gets players excited about playing Magic.
Change is tremendously important in a format people actively don't enjoy, which could be said about pre-Dominaria iterations of Standard, which have been plagued by dominant decks, repeated bannings and stagnant metagames. Then Dominaria rode in on its white horse and slayed the The Scarab God, and the people rejoiced.
How can one set break up two years of quagmire so effectively?
Well, when ludicrously busted new planeswalkers enter a format, it's bound to shake things up. I'd argue that the only thing that actually changed in Standard is that even more busted cards than existed before were added to the cardpool. It wasn't a subtle, we added some new checks and balances to the best strategies, it was more like, here's some even more absurd cards than already existed – go nuts.
On the one hand, Standard needed a face lift, but on the other, simply upping the stakes is a risky answer to a fundamental lingering problem.
Karn and Teferi are Modern Cards
I'm sure you've seen these powerful 'walkers creeping up in Modern. I think that is fairly common knowledge by this point. However, I'd argue that these cards are so buck wild in terms of power level and stats-to-mana-cost ratio that it appears to me they were designed to impact Modern.
There was a particular passage in the February 2018 B&R announcement about releasing JTMS and BBE back into the Modern wilderness that stuck with me:
"In looking at the top decks of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, successful players only included a handful of cards with the intent of tapping four lands to cast them. (Colorless Eldrazi and Tron being the exceptions, among other popular decks.) Jace and Bloodbraid Elf are powerful options that fill similar roles in different decks as curve-toppers in the four-mana slot. Adding attractive options at the same mana cost in different color combinations at the same time mitigates the risk that one or the other could pull too many decks toward it at once."
–February 18, 2018 B&R Announcement.
There appears to be a mindfulness about what the landscape of Modern looked and a concerted effort to incentivize players to go a little higher on the curve. Nobody plays fours. What would it take for people to get on board with four-drops?
"Hey kids, we noticed that people don't climb the curve into the 'four-drop territory.' Try these..."
At the time of the unbanning, I basically trusted that it would be fine. My thinking was that, Modern isn't really about cards like this anymore and they are likely role players at best. The calendar has flipped several times since then, and it would appear that assessment is more or less true.
There's some decks that play JTMS and BBE, but they are not in the top tier of the format. Long story short, Modern is so busted and broken that it is beyond even the range of JTMS or BBE to make much of a dent in the craziness that is a bunch of decks trying to checkmate each other on turn three.
Let's return for a moment to that statement from the B&R announcement. It would appear that at least some thought has been applied to the idea that it is strange that four-drop, tap-out threats are largely absent from Modern and that adding a few (JTMS and BBE) adds new options to the cardpool to consider.
It turns out that Wizards was right about these four-drops. In a format as broken as Modern, they don't carry much clout. They are obviously great and powerful cards, but they were right, Modern is not a format about tapping out for four-drops that don't win the game on the spot.
The question the whole situaion has me asking is: Is printing cards like Karn and Teferi doubling down on trying to make tap-out threats with CMC 4+ that matter? I think it's worth consideration on pure "brokenness" alone.
Effect-to-Mana Is the Only Thing That Defines Brokenness
How much does it cost and what does it do? These are the only questions that really matter when trying to determine how powerful or comeptitive a card or strategy is.
Keep in mind: that qualifying statement also applies to combos and synergies. Does Card A plus Card B equal a significant discount on effect to mana cost? For example, Throught the Breach plus Emrakul? The concept still defines these kind of interactions.
When we take even a glimpse at Teferi and Karn, it becomes clear that these cards provide an absurd amount of bang for their buck. Both are a steal at their respective four- and five-cost price tags. Both have a slew of useful and flexible effects and high loyalty output. Both have rates that are among the most lopsided ever printed on cards at the four- and five-drop casting cost.
I find Karn, Scion of Urza to be a particular frustrating Magic card to exist because it simply has too much loyalty. If a key downside of a planeswalker is that it can be attacked, it is a significant advantage to have a cheap walker that generates so many hit points so quickly in the game. Even with a board presence, it often can't be attacked off the board.
Both also have modes that help each defend their position on the board. Teferi can plop down and either slay something outright, or untap lands to make another play in its own defense. Karn can make a blocker or simply buff itself to the point where it can't be attacked off the board.
The Jace Test
If you've been playing for a while, you're of course familar with the depressing qualifier of "The Jace Test." Basically, when JTMS was in Standard, players simply could not afford to play threats that didn't pass the Jace Test. Does Jace come down, bounce your threat, and win the game? Well, you can't play that threat then.
Jace was so powerful in Standard that it resolving with an opening was enough to steal games. The same feels true for Karn and Teferi in Standard. Each card is so powerful that if the opponent can't immediately deal with it, the game risks being over from the value the walker will generate over the next few subsequent turns. Everything you draw (unless it is a Vraska's Contempt) is likely not as strong as the opponent simply using one of their walker's abilities each turn.
It's messed up!
My argument is that these cards are basically designed like they are meant to be four- and five-drops that matter in a format (Modern) where four- and five-drops historically don't matter because they can't compete with the cheaper spells in terms of flexibility.
In terms of having spells like these in Standard, they simply offer a better mana-to-effect ratio than anything else. Teferi makes The Scarab God look tame by comparison. Karn makes The Scarab God look like hot garbage.
The Jace-Tag Debate
The last caveat I'd like to touch on in this finance article, that is admittedly less financially focused than I usually write on here, is the price of these new cards.
Karn has been selling well over $75.00 USD and Teferi around $35.00 USD. Karn is teetering into Standard price territory usually reserved for cards named Jace!
There are a few factors to consider. There are no Expeditions or Masterpieces in Dominaria to help suppress the big price tag. The second is the overall usefulness of the card not only across Standard archetypes, but across formats and even into Eternal.
It's not just that Karn goes into the best decks, it likely goes into nearly every deck. I've found that most of my decks get better when Karn is added, simply because the card is so busted. Obviously, the law of survival of the fittest will dictate that only the strongest Karn decks survive, but individual Standard cards with such a high price tag create a considerable cost of entry to players of all levels. And I don't believe the price either of these cards has peaked yet.
I don't see other cards that are objectively "better" than these cards in Standard in terms of power level. I also don't see many other strategies that seem on the same level as these. Is Standard again headed for a stalemate mired in cards that are simply better than the rest of the heap? If history has taught me anything when it comes to Standard, I wouldn't bet against it. I would, however, bet on Teferi and Karn to continue to bushwack their way through Standard and continue to be the most desirable non-Reserved List cards in Magic for the foreseeable future.
At least, that is, until the next set when WOTC prints "Super Jace" and "Wonder Liliana," which respectively make Teferi and Karn look like a couple of unnamed henchmen, to shake up Standard or incentize people to tap out in Modern.
Just kidding. I hope.